A golden statue of a person perches atop the top of the exterior of the Oregon Capitol in Salem.

The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

Bradley Parks | OPB

When lawmakers in the Oregon House forged a deal last week to end delay tactics slowing the 2021 legislative session, a central piece of the agreement was clear: Majority Democrats granted Republicans more say in the weighty job of drawing new political maps.

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But another move that has helped smooth relationships in the Capitol has gotten little attention. In an experiment that upends the normal budgeting process in Salem, Democratic leaders are now planning to let lawmakers personally dictate how millions of dollars in federal aid can be spent within their districts.

Under a plan being put forward by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, $240 million in relief money from the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act would be separated out from the normal jockeying for cash that comes with the biennial budgeting process.

Rather than or perhaps alongside fighting to get funding for pet projects within their districts through more normal channels, each of Oregon’s 90 lawmakers will be allotted a pot of money they can control. Every one of the state’s 30 senators will have the authority to spend $4 million in federal funding as they see fit. Every member of the 60-person house will get $2 million to control.

“We decided to shoot the moon, shoot Pluto,” Courtney said Thursday. “These are the times that require these kinds of daring, risky actions.”

The longest-tenured lawmaker in state history, Courtney said he’s never seen anything like the cash allotments he and Kotek are planning a scenario that looks more like oft-maligned federal earmarks than the normal budget process. But he said he’s also never seen anything like the past 14 months.

“We thought up this idea: If we gave so much to every legislator, they could go to their district and pick projects, one-time pitches that would really mean a lot,” Courtney said. “It would be a very powerful way to speak to the state of Oregon in a very bipartisan, nonpolitical way.”

The experiment is possible because of the mountain of federal cash heading to Oregon as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, or ARPA. The state expects to receive $2.6 billion from the plan, a sum that has banished worries about a hole in the next two-year budget, and instead has lawmakers strategizing on how best to spend hundreds of millions of dollars.

Under a budget framework released last month, the Legislature’s top budget writers proposed fully funding state programs, socking away more than $500 million for future use, and still have around $780 million to spend on new investments.

Courtney and Kotek have already solicited ideas on how to spend that money, sending out a form that legislators could submit to propose worthy causes. Unsurprisingly, lawmakers responded enthusiastically.

Under the newer idea, though, lawmakers won’t have to convince their fellow lawmakers that their idea merits inclusion in the end-of-session “Christmas tree bill,” where budget money is doled out to chosen projects around the state. As long as spending meets criteria under the ARPA rules the state is still waiting for more guidance on they can use it.

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The approach is attractive to lawmakers keen on bringing spending to their districts. But it could be especially so for Republicans, who frequently worry that urban portions of the state, more likely represented by Democrats, are given priority. Those legislators are now assured that money is coming back to their districts, regardless of who emerges victorious in the normal budget pile-on.

“It allows individual members to engage in a way that, if they’re not on Ways and Means, they wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” said House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, referring to the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. “Ensuring that each member of the Legislature has some version of agency over spending that supports their community that they represent I think is really healthy and really positive.”

Drazan said that the budget proposal floated by Courtney and Kotek was one key to breaking a logjam in the House, where Republicans had insisted until last week that all bills be read in full before a vote.

“It was important, but I also think that the important thing is we figured out ways that we could work together generally,” she said. “That happened to be one where we could find some agreement.”

Asked about the matter, Kotek issued a statement to OPB.

“We are working to balance broader statewide needs with the unique needs of different communities,” she said. “This local investment process will deliver some much-needed relief and economic opportunity to every corner of Oregon.”

Not everyone’s taken with the plan. Courtney said he’s already hearing from “naysayers” who are asking questions about the approach that he can’t answer. One legislator who’s not certain about the move is Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, who wondered last week if the money should be spent in a more targeted manner.

“I think I would prefer to look at the whole state,” Salinas said. “We have 60 members of the House. What could we do with $120 million? I’m not a pork kind of person.”

Courtney suggested Thursday there will still be money left for “some very big projects,” even after lawmakers tap the $240 million.

Just how lawmakers will spend the money they’re about to be given will become clearer in the coming weeks. Courtney and Kotek are setting a deadline of May 10 for legislators to submit plans for the money. Those would be checked against the spending requirements the federal government sets for ARPA money, which are expected sometime in mid-May.

As long as they meet those requirements, lawmakers will be unburdened and that could get interesting. The sudden windfall has led at least one lawmaker to consider holding a competition where people would make a sales pitch for some of the money, though it’s not clear that will ultimately occur.

“Even though right now there might be some chatter about getting creative with approach, these are public dollars,” Drazan said, adding that legislative budget staff would be watching the process closely. ‘I feel really confident that the Legislative Fiscal Office is going to assure that these have sideboards.”

While the spending plan appears to have eased some of the partisan tension that has marred the legislative session, it’s not clear it will prove a lasting balm as contentious bills make their way toward final passage.

“Every day is a fight, every day is a struggle,” said Courtney, in a characteristically dour synopsis. “I’m not going to say we smoothed anything, with this group of people.”

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